Breakfast with the Vanderbilts
Editor’s Note: Early last year the Custom Home Furnishings
Trade School, Swannanoa, NC, began a project in conjunction with
The Biltmore Estate, Asheville, NC. “Total Experience at the
Biltmore” was created to provide workroom education students
not only with hands-on experience creating custom window treatments,
but also with real-world experience in working with clients—and
all of the things that can go right, and wrong.
The project mostly involved a guesthouse located on the estate near
its winery. Over the next several months, D&WC will feature
a series of articles on the Total Experience project. We begin this
month, however, with an article on restoration of one of the rooms
in the main house. It illustrates some of the work and details that
must go into bringing an American historic site back to its origianal
The famous Biltmore House was built
by George Vanderbilt between 1889 and 1895. The house and the estate
grounds hold an extra special memory for me, as I lived on the estate
my entire childhood. My father was an employee of The Biltmore Co.
for 45 years, working various jobs from managing the calf barns
to working in the vineyards.
One of my fondest memories is at Christmas time when the families
living on the estate were invited to the Biltmore House to enjoy
a Christmas party in the Winter Garden, complete with presents from
Santa Claus. It was a pleasure returning as an adult to the Biltmore
House to learn more about its historic restoration projects as they
relate to draperies, trims and upholstery projects.
FIRST PROBLEM: THE FABRIC
The first room we are going to feature is the Breakfast Room, originally
designed as a more intimate setting for Vanderbilt and his guests.
It probably was used for informal meals. Restoration of the Breakfast
Room was completed in 1993 at a cost of approximately $200,000,
and along with Mrs. Vanderbilt’s Bedroom (which will be featured
in a future issue), took almost five years to complete.
The Breakfast Room is one of several rooms where the current Biltmore
staff knew exactly what the original fabric looked like, according
to Ellen Rickman, director of museum services and floral displays.
“We had chairs in storage with the original fabric on them
for this room,” said Rickman.
A former curator started researching in the late ’70s the fabrics
for this room and Mrs. Vanderbilt’s bedroom. Both fabrics were
hand-woven, silk-cut velvet. As the curator began looking for a
company to reproduce the fabric, she found that no companies in
the United States were willing to undertake reproduction of the
fabric because of its complex design and because of the difficulty
and cost of setting up a loom for custom-made fabric.
“The vertical repeat of the fabric is over 36 inches long,
and it was also very narrow, about 19 inches wide, so standard looms
would not work,” said Rickman.
THE FRENCH CONNECTION
Research was then conducted in Europe. One of the companies contacted
was Tassinari & Chatel of Lyons, France. When asked if they
could reproduce the fabric a representative said, “Yes, we
would really love to do the fabric because our company originally
produced the fabric for George Vanderbilt.” At the time, the
Biltmore Estate was not aware that this company had worked with
Vanderbilt on the original designs and fabrics for this room. What
a fantastic find!
Better yet, Tassinari & Chatel still had all the records from
the late 1890s and knew exactly how to reproduce the patterns for
When a restoration project is started at Biltmore that involves
drapery and upholstery, curators research how it was done originally
and then make every effort to recreate it exactly. “The cushions
in this Breakfast Room, for example, are sewn like they were originally,
the trims are applied in the exact same way, and the height of the
cushions on the chairs are exactly the same height,” said Rickman.
“We don’t always know the exact appearance of a room,
but when we do, we attempt to return the room just as it originally
Next month we will feature the first of the gorgeous window treatments
that The Total Experience class at the Custom Home Furnishings School
created for the Guest Cottage on The Biltmore Estate.
Patricia Sprinkle is the managing editor of Sew WHAT? Magazine
published monthly by Professional Drapery Seminars Inc., Swannanoa,
NC. Its mission is to help drapery, slipcover and upholstery professionals
with all of their fabrication and design needs.